Slice of Life

Chess gives kids in Syracuse skills that go beyond the board

Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor

Anton Ninno first used chess to make a middle ages history lesson more relatable for students. Now he runs the chess club at Southside Academy Charter School and is the president of the Syracuse Chess nonprofit he founded.

Amir Taylor and Shiloh Mantock were deadlocked. Both stared at the chessboard in front of them, only a few pieces left to their names. One owned a much more favorable fate, he just didn’t know it. They’re only kids playing an old man’s game.

All around them, other children galloped around the Southside Academy Charter School classroom to shelve bunches of chess sets. School ended more than an hour ago, and chess club was over now, too. It was time to go home. Still, both Taylor and Mantock hesitated, fearing they’d make a fatal move.

Anton Ninno had seen enough and made a lesson out of the standoff.

“If he doesn’t get a checkmate, he needs to start learning a new game,” Ninno said of the stalemate before telling the boys to pack it up, pointing out where Mantock had Taylor beat.

The teaching moment is commonplace for 65-year-old Ninno. He’s been running the chess club at Southside Charter since he got there more than 10 years ago, and did the same at Porter Elementary School on Syracuse’s Westside before he retired from teaching. Two years ago, Ninno launched the nonprofit Syracuse Chess. It’s an effort to pass the game onto the next generation, and in Syracuse, chess has been a rallying point for young and old alike.

This Sunday, Southside Charter will host the Onondaga County Chess Championship for three divisions that range from kindergarten through high school. Participation isn’t limited to county residents. Local high schools have competitions monthly, but Ninno said it’s the biggest tournament of the year.

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Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor

Ninno’s introduction of chess to the classroom began a couple decades back when he wanted to put a relatable spin on the medieval period for his students — the kings and queens made it easy. The kids expressed interest in the game and started playing during lunchtime. Soon, enough of them played to merit a club.

Now, chess club is much more than a history lesson.

“Chess is an icon for intelligence — the thinking and planning ahead,” Ninno said. “But what people don’t know is that chess is also a social game.”

Kids meet peers from other classes, grades and, considering it’s a charter school, other neighborhoods, too. It doesn’t matter what their race, gender, religion or financial status is. Ninno called chess a “common denominator and a leveler.”

Early on in its existence, Syracuse Chess got a $2,000 grant from Salt City Dishes, a crowdfunded community organization. Instructors could be paid to teach the game and sets were bought for donation to libraries and schools. It was necessary funding for a cause that’s been picking up steam since its inception.

Bob Nasiff, 74, just might pose the greatest chess mind around these parts. His training in the game began in high school, where it didn’t take long to grasp its complexities. The army stationed him in Hawaii, and when his duties allowed, he’d wander off base to challenge locals under the huts of Waikiki Beach.

Post-service, his rise through the U.S. Chess Federation ranks brought him to work there and status as a Master — a rating between 2200 and 2399 — and National Tournament Director. One vivid memory detailed a tournament in Iceland against Russians. When the federation made rules alterations, he was consulted. A scene in chess movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” draws from a time he kicked all the parents out of a tournament.

Playing chess often made Nasiff nervous because it was everything to him. For the past two decades, though, Nasiff has taken a step away from the board. Now he teaches others how to navigate it, whether it’s through volunteering with Ninno or offering paid lessons.

“The hope is it’ll be a lifetime hobby for them,” Nasiff said. “I’d rather have them get into sports or chess, obviously, than to drugs. And believe me, chess can be very addicting. I know personally.”

The first goal in Nasiff’s eyes is for the kids to have fun, and in that same light, for them to develop the skills to win. Winning is always more fun. Win or lose, though, Ninno sees chess as a vehicle to drive home a lesson in behavior. Nobody likes the kid who throws his pieces in disgust or celebrates with a touchdown dance, Ninno said.

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Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor

Some players are a bit “too cool” for Ninno’s after school crew, so they play during lunch when fewer witnesses are around. Others embrace it, bursting into the room once the clock strikes four. Their backpacks clad with youthful and exuberant characters like the Minions and BB-8 don’t match the wisdom they display in tame games throughout the room.

But not all competitors outgrow the board. Bobby Kunnath heads the chess club at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central. Students approached him four years ago with a desire to continue what they participated in during middle school. Kunnath has noticed it’s mostly kids who don’t normally excel on a basketball court — the bookworm and computer types — that join the club. The intellectual depth of the game is what seems to be attractive.

“It’s so complex that once you get into the game there are so many options available to you, and it doesn’t just depend on your moves but also on your partner’s moves,” Kunnath said.

A complex game, but the process of spreading it from generation to generation is rather simple. Teachers like Ninno, Nasiff and Kunnath, are the reason some kids are even introduced to chess.

For young sixth-grader Mantock, his favorite part about the club is just as simple.

“Playing chess.”

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